Part 2: How to Begin (Goal: Engage the Reader)
Before you begin to write, I recommend that you:
- Develop a list of qualities you want to demonstrate and
- Think of events or situations that highlight these qualities
Then, you should write about one of these events or situations in a way that demonstrates these qualities and captures the reader’s attention.
1. List Your Greatest Qualities
To answer the personal statement prompt more easily, focus again on the question of what you want admissions committees to know about you beyond your numbers and achievements.
I’m not talking about your hobbies (e.g., “I followed Taylor Swift to every concert she performed in the US during this past year”), although you could certainly point to aspects of your lifestyle in your essay to make your point.
Instead, I’m talking about which of your qualities–character, personality traits, attitudes–you want to demonstrate. Examples include:
- Extraordinary compassion
- Willingness to learn
- Great listening skills
- And so on
If you have difficulty thinking of your great qualities (many students do), ask family members or close friends what you’re good at and why they like you; that will take care of things :)
Finally, choose the two or three qualities that you want to focus on in your personal statement. Let’s use compassion and knowledge-seeking as the foundational qualities of an original example for this article.
(Note: I cannot overstate how important it is to think of the qualities you want to demonstrate in your personal statement before choosing a situation or event to write about. Students who decide on an event or situation first usually struggle to fit in their qualities within the confines of their story. On the other hand, students who choose the qualities they want to convey first are easily able to demonstrate them because the event or situation they settle on naturally highlights these qualities.)
2. When or Where Have You Demonstrated These Qualities?
Now that I’m off my soapbox and you’ve chosen qualities to highlight, it’s time to list any event(s) or setting(s) where you’ve demonstrated them.
I should explicitly mention that this event or setting doesn't need to come from a clinical (e.g., shadowing a physician, interacting with a young adult patient at a cancer center, working with children in an international clinic) or research experience (e.g., making a finding in cancer research), although it’s OK if it involves an extracurricular activity directly related to medicine.
In fact, since most students start their essays by describing clinical or research experiences, starting off with something else–travel (e.g., a camping trip in Yellowstone), volunteering (e.g., building homes in New Orleans), family (e.g., spending time with and learning from your elderly and ill grandmother back home in New Hampshire), work (e.g., helping out at your parents’ donut shop)–will make you immediately stand out.
Let’s start with the example of building homes in New Orleans. Why? Because we could easily demonstrate compassion and knowledge-seeking through this experience. Notice how the qualities we select can choose the story for us?
3. Describe Your Event as a Story
Here’s where the art of writing a great personal statement really comes in.
Admissions officers read thousands of essays, most of which are very cliché or dry. Therefore, it’s critical that you stand out by engaging the reader from the very beginning.
By far the best way to capture admissions officers early is by developing a story at the start of your essay about the event or situation you chose in Step 2.
In a previous article, I wrote about the three critical elements for writing a great admissions essay story: 1) a compelling character, 2) a relatable plot, and 3) authenticity)
However, I want to go one step beyond that article and provide an actual example of how the same event can be written in a routine vs. compelling way. That way, you can avoid the common pitfalls of typical personal statements and write a standout one.
One of my most eye-opening experiences came when I volunteered with Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans during the summer months of 2014. Up to that point, I had only heard about the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina 9 years earlier. Although pictures and stories of the aftermath compelled me to volunteer, it was not until I observed the emotional pounding the people of New Orleans had experienced that I developed a greater sense of compassion for their plight.
New Orleans was hot and humid during the summer months of 2014–no surprise there. However, for a native Oregonian like me, waking up to 90-degree and 85% humidity days initially seemed like too much to bear. That was until I reflected on the fact that my temporary discomfort was minute in contrast to the destruction of communities and emotional pounding experienced by the people of New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina 9 years earlier. Although pictures and stories of the aftermath compelled me to understand its effects on the community and volunteer, actually building homes and interacting with the locals, like 9 year-old Jermaine, who cried as I held his hand while we unveiled his rebuilt home, taught me that caring for people was as much about lifting spirits as making physical improvements.
Many people may feel the Routine example is pretty good. Upon closer look, however, it seems that:
- The focus is as much on New Orleanians as the applicant
- The story is not particularly relatable (unless the reader had also volunteered there)
- There isn’t much support for the writer actually being touched by the people there
On the other hand, the Compelling example:
- Keeps the spotlight on the applicant throughout (e.g., references being from Oregon, discusses her reflections, interacting with Jermaine)
- Has a relatable plot (e.g., temporary discomfort, changing perspectives)
- Is authentic (e.g., provides an example of how she lifted spirits)
(You can find yet another example of a typical vs. standout admissions essay introduction to engage readers in this earlier post.)
4. Demonstrate Your Qualities
(Note: This section applies to all aspects of your essay.)
“Show, don’t tell” is one of the most common pieces of advice given for writing personal statements, but further guidance or examples are rarely provided to demonstrate what it looks like when done well.
This is unfortunate because the best way to understand how standout personal statements demonstrate qualities through an engaging story is by reading two examples of the same situation: one that “tells” about a quality, and another that “shows” a quality.
Let’s take a look at the last sentence of each story example I provided in the previous section to better understand this distinction.
Telling (from Routine story)
“…it was not until I observed the emotional pounding the people of New Orleans had experienced that I developed a greater sense of compassion for their plight.”
Showing (from Compelling story)
“…actually building homes and interacting with the locals, like 9 year-old Jermaine, who cried as I held his hand while we unveiled his rebuilt home, taught me that caring for people…”
Notice how the second example demonstrates compassion without ever mentioning the word "compassion" (hence no bolded words)?
Moreover, the same sentence demonstrates knowledge-seeking: “Although pictures and stories of the aftermath compelled me to understand its effects on the community and volunteer, actually building homes and interacting with the locals...”)
That’s what you’re going for.
Think about it. Who do you consider to be more kind:
- A person who says, “I’m really nice!”; or
- A person who you've seen do nice things for others?
Clearly, the second person will be seen as more kind, even if there's no difference between their levels of kindness.
Therefore, by demonstrating your qualities, you will look better to admissions committees, and also seem more authentic.
The medical school application is your single best opportunity to convince a group of strangers that you would be an asset both to the school and to the medical profession. It’s your opportunity to show yourself as something more than grades and scores. Granted, every person who applies will have strengths and weaknesses. But it’s how you present your strengths and weaknesses that really counts. Recommendation letters, personal statements, and admission interviews are ways to showcase your talents and convince the school that you have what it takes.
How to Get Great Recommendations
Letters of recommendation are typically sent in the latter part of the application process with Secondary Applications. However, it’s important that you start to think about and solicit your letters much earlier in the game.
Admissions committees are generally very specific about from whom they want to receive letters on your behalf. Don’t take these requirements lightly. You should do everything you can to give the medical schools exactly the kind of letters they have requested.
Sometimes a medical school will ask you for a “pre-med committee letter.” These letters are typically of two types: Either an original letter written by your undergraduate premedical committee on your behalf, or a summary of excerpts of comments made by individuals who have submitted letters (at your request) on your behalf. While the pre-med committee letter used to be a standard component of any applicant’s application, they are rarer today.
Alternatively, you will be asked to submit two or three individual letters of recommendation, of which at least one or two must come from senior science faculty. A letter written by a teaching assistant usually carries less weight. However, letters cosigned by both the teaching assistant and professor are generally acceptable. In addition to the recommendations from science faculty, most medical schools request a letter from a humanities or social science professor, especially for non-science majors. You may also be asked to submit a letter by someone familiar with your clinical experience, research, or work history.
Supplemental Letters of Recommendation
Generally, it is permissible to send supplemental letters of recommendation in addition to the required letters. But note, these will be additional letters, not letters in substitution of those requested. As a rule, you should never send more than twice the number of letters requested. Additionally, remember that more letters is not necessarily better. If you’re going to send supplemental letters they should substantively add to your application.
Make Your Recommendation Letters Personal
Recommendations are essentially personal sales letters written on your behalf and it’s important that the letter writer put the best pitch forward. Understand it this way: It’s clear that the more personal the letter, the better off you are. This means you need to get to know your professors or more importantly, you need to give your professors an opportunity to get to know you. Go to office hours; become a teaching assistant; volunteer to work in their lab; take them to lunch! Whatever it takes so that when the time comes, they will be able to write you a personal letter of recommendation.
When you approach someone to write a letter of recommendation, don’t hesitate to ask whether she can write you a strong letter of support. If the person hesitates in any way, look elsewhere. Although this may be embarrassing, it will hurt you a lot more in the long run to have someone write you a lukewarm or unenthusiastic letter of recommendation. Remember, schools fully expect these letters to be glowing endorsements. Once you have garnered a positive response, be sure to provide your recommender with a resume to provide a more complete picture of you as a person. If you have a strong academic record, you may want to include a copy of your transcript to showcase your academic prowess and consistency. Your Personal Statement and any articles or papers which you think may be helpful should also be offered. Finally, always provide the writer with clear directions for electronic or hard-copy submission of the letter to the appropriate school(s). You should provide addressed and stamped envelopes when needed.
Pre-meds who procrastinate will be left scrambling to get recommendations. Professors and teaching assistants can become overwhelmed with requests. You can imagine the potential quality of these letters. You must give at least one month for your letter writers to write and submit the letters. Keep track of the status of your letters. As the deadlines approach, call and check on their progress. Once you’ve confirmed that your letters have been sent, thank-you notes are a nice touch. Personal visits are in order after you’ve been accepted.
How to Write an Effective Personal Statement
The term “Personal Statement” brings a shiver to the spine of many a potential medical student. You should think of the personal statement, however, as an opportunity to show admissions officers what you’re made of. They want to know why you want to enter the medical profession and this is your chance to tell them as clearly and compellingly as you can.
Purposes of a Personal Statement
The Personal Statement shows whether or not you can write a clear, coherent essay that’s logically and grammatically correct. These days, students’ writing skills are often presumed deficient until proven otherwise. If you plan on submitting your application through AMCAS, the length of your personal statement should be 5300 characters, which should be ample space to succinctly set yourself apart from other applicants.
Second, it provides you with the opportunity to present the admissions committee with more of a “three-dimensional” portrait of yourself as a deserving candidate than GPA and MCAT numbers possibly can. What you choose to write sends clear signals about what’s important to you and what your values are. You can explain why you really want to pursue medical graduate work and the career path it will enable you to follow. Your essay also enables you to explain things like weaknesses or gaps in an otherwise commendable record.
How Do Med Schools Use Personal Statements?
Essays are the best way for admissions officers to determine who you are. So, don’t hesitate to go beyond your current experience for essay topics. Feel free to discuss past events that, in part, define who you are. If you have overcome significant obstacles, say so. If you were honored with an award, describe the award and what you did to achieve recognition.
Give some thought to how your past and current experiences have contributed to your intellectual, personal and professional development. Rather than make pronouncements about goals and future activities, which are easily made-up and often exaggerated, select a few stories from your life experiences that showcase the qualities and characteristics that you already possess and that will help you be an empathic, committed doctor. Always remember the adage: Show; don’t tell. Start early, write several drafts, and edit, edit, edit.
Top 7 Tips for Med School Personal Statements
Avoid the Rehashed Resume
The personal statement is not the time to recount all your activities and honors in list-like fashion.
Make It Personal
This is your opportunity to put a little panache into the application. Show the admissions committee why you decided to go into medicine. Was it an experience you had in school? Was there a particular extracurricular activity that changed your way of thinking? Did you find a summer lab job so exhilarating that it reconfirmed your love for science? Use vignettes and anecdotes to weave a story and make the essay a pleasure to read.
Avoid Controversial Topics
If you do include discussion of a “hot topic,” definitely avoid being dogmatic or preachy. You don’t want to take the risk of alienating a reader who may not share your politics.
Don’t Get Too Creative
Now is not the time to write a haiku. Remember, the medical establishment is largely a scientific community (although individual physicians may be passionate artists, poets, writers, musicians, historians, etc.). On the other hand, don’t be trite and don’t be boring. Avoid writing “I want to be a doctor because…”
For instance, if you received a C in physics, you may feel compelled to justify it somehow. Unless you believe that the circumstances truly do merit some sort of mention, don’t make excuses. You don’t need to provide them with a road map to your weaknesses. If you had a bad year or semester because of illness, family problems, etc., ask your pre-med advisor to explain the details in his or her cover letter.
Write Multiple Drafts
Have your pre-med advisor and perhaps an English teaching assistant read and edit it. Proofread, proofread, and proofread some more. Also, try reading it out loud. This is always a good test of clarity and flow.
Think Ahead to Interviews
Interviewers often use your personal statement as fodder for questions. Of course, if you’ve included experiences and ideas that are dear to you, that you feel strongly about, you will have no problem speaking with passion and confidence. Nothing is more appealing to admissions folks than a vibrant, intelligent, and articulate candidate. If you write about research you conducted five years ago, you’d better brush up before your interviews. Don’t engage in hyperbole: You risk running up against an interviewer who will see through your exaggerations.